The Help Group Finds Silver Lining in Virtual Services for Special Needs Youth
Interest increases for online summer camps, enrichment programs, social skills groups, life skills coaching, and more as California
continues its COVID-19 school re-opening plans
Laurie Stephens, PhD, Director of Program Development
When the coronavirus pandemic struck, The Help Group, a non-profit organization in Southern California that serves children, adolescents and young adults with special needs, discovered a silver lining when it shifted to distance learning and remote services – virtual offerings have a necessary and beneficial place in service provision. Given its success, The Help Group will continue to offer remote services, even as many organizations and businesses throughout the country slowly begin to re-open.
The Help Group has a long-standing history of offering innovative programming in the field of special education, autism services, mental health treatment, family supports and training throughout Southern California. Never was this truer than when the agency shifted to distance learning and remote services during the Covid-19 “Safer at Home” orders. There were no evidence-based models for offering specialized day school classes, afterschool enrichment, and life skills coaching virtually. The experience of transferring all of its education, clinical and enrichment programs, and creating some new ones, to a virtual platform was challenging and exciting. The greatest lesson learned was that providing a virtual platform for specialized schools and other services would expand and strengthen the continuum available to young people with special needs long after COVID ends.
When the “Safer at Home” orders first went into place, most families were thrown into a highly unusual and confusing situation, which was only heightened for families of children with special needs. For instance, children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) thrive on consistency, structure and predictability. In a similar vein, many LGBTQ+ teens and young adults are not out regarding their sexuality and/or gender identity with family members who they are quarantining with. An increase in anxiety and depression has been reported in all special needs communities. For most, they simply did not know where to turn. So when provided with the opportunity to engage in over 15 virtual classes, parent supports, and therapeutic groups, the response was overwhelming.
The following are some of the benefits The Help Group has identified in offering virtual classes, programs, and supports:
- For parents, young adults and children, when the typical stressors of having to get to and from a class/event were removed, they felt present to take in the full scope of the class. Several of the children who attended virtual classes spoke of preferring this method because they could participate from the comfort of their home and did not have to stress about a novel or unpredictable environment. One mother reported that while her son was extremely hesitant to attend a “Worry Warriors” class, after the first session, he said, “I can’t wait to meet with my friends again next week.” For the LGBTQ+ community, some teenaged clients expressed how much easier it is for them to participate from their bedroom, particularly when they may not have the support of their parents to be driven to an LGBTQ+ event or are not out yet to their parents
- Social skills and anxiety reduction skills can be taught effectively through a virtual platform, even to special needs children. Nearly every child and their parent who participated in a social skills group said they learned new skills and were able to generalize these to offline situations. Using a virtual platform to teach social skills, while revolutionary, can also be seen as common sense given that as a society we are moving in the direction of increased “work from home” jobs. Having learned social and adaptive skills through virtual means, children with ASD and other social challenges may have a leg up in such a competitive job market. In addition, the landscape of social interactions has been moving toward virtual friendships. By offering therapeutic groups through virtual means, The Help Group is able to teach more “real life” skills related to what their future is likely to look like. Within the virtual social skills programs, several of the children bonded by exchanging their personal YouTube channels with each other.
- Virtual platforms allow for a much broader reach geographically and promote more diversity.During their first round of classes, families from several states and other countries as far away as Saudi Arabia signed up. Many parents related they could not find any virtual programming for their children locally and expressed gratitude that there were productive, educational, and fun activities that their children could participate in during their quarantine time. While in person classes can at times lead to bullying and rejection of those needing additional support, this negativity did not appear to occur in the virtual classes. One parent reached out to say that her child, who had never participated in a cooking class before, felt a strong sense of self-determination and independence by being able to take part in the class. His mother related her son found a passion for cooking and they now plan to continue to cook together. She further said it was the first time he had been able to attend a class with such a diverse group where his need for a wheelchair was taken in stride.
With the success of The Help Group’s distance learning school-based programs and virtual class offerings, The Help Group has moved forward with virtual summer camps for young people ages 6 – 21 with autism spectrum disorder and other special needs. So far, 72% of campers participating will be from outside of the Greater Los Angeles area. The Help Group also continues to offer life skills coaching for young adults, and plans to launch more virtual classes in the fall. While Help Group students at some point will return to their school campuses, the organization is looking into implementing long-term distance learning options and virtual programs for the special needs community who may want or need remote services regardless of their geographic location.
“While nothing can replace one-on-one attention, especially for the most impacted young people, we have found that this younger generation in spite of their challenges are receptive to learning virtually,” says Dr. Laurie Stephens, Sr. Director of Autism Programs at The Help Group.
The Help Group has always been ahead of the curve – launching the first STEM school in the nation for students with social and learning differences. “It’s exciting to think about providing distance learning or virtual programming year-round. This crisis created an opportunity for us to broaden our services and expand our reach to serve even more young people,” says Dr. Susan Berman, COO of The Help Group.
Despite the challenges presented in these uncertain times, The Help Group will continue to evolve, refine, and explore new techniques and strategies to meet the needs of their students, clients and families.
Dr. Berman promises, “We are committed to helping young people fulfill their potential to lead positive, productive and rewarding lives regardless of circumstance or distance.”
To learn more about The Help Group’s specialized day schools, young adult services, homeschooling, mental health, vocational, and residential programs, visit www.thehelpgroup.org or call Admissions at 877-943-5747.